Decolonizing the Outer Coast Classroom

Category: Local News
Created on Friday, 09 August 2019 15:57

By ARIADNE WILL
Special to the Sentinel
    With only about 100 fluent Tlingit speakers left, X̱’unei Lance Twitchell is in a race against time to revitalize Lingít language and culture.
    Twitchell, who prefers the spelling Lingít to the commonly accepted Tlingit, is an associate professor of Alaska Native languages at the University of Alaska Southeast, and was a teacher at the Outer Coast Summer Seminar, held June 29-August 3 in Sitka.
    While teaching his Outer Coast students the Lingít language, Twitchell also saw the Summer Seminar as an opportunity to “decolonize” the classroom.
    “Decolonizing a classroom typically involves some active decentering,” Twitchell explained. “I would want to decenter Eurocentrism, which is deeply linked to colonialism, where we still see the European thought-world ... as being able to go back and trace humanity to its own origin points.”

X̱’unei Lance Twitchell leads a free class on the basics of the Lingít language at Centennial Hall July 14. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

    Twitchell believes the issue with Eurocentrism is not that teaching its history is wrong, but that the attention Eurocentrism demands is greater than the attention given to indigenous histories and traditions.
    “What we have in education is often assimilation,” he said. “We say that if we can get everyone to think the same way and look at things the same way, then we’ll say that they’re successful.”
    Twitchell believes that each language is instead a potential path toward a different education. He says that this is challenged by the colonizer’s belief that everyone should learn and act the same way.
    “If you strive away from this assimilation model, there’s a terror that everyone’s going to fall behind, or that something’s going to go wrong,” he said. “In reality, you’re just going to create an equitable path.”
    He elaborated that the mentality that there’s only one way to learn helps lead to the death of cultures different from that of the colonizer.
     “If everybody takes the same path then the colonizer gets to choose the path,” said Twitchell. “Then the colonizer will continue to succeed at grossly inequitable levels and everybody else will fail. It’s almost like their success is mirrored by the failure to serve other populations.”
    In the classroom Twitchell focuses not just on his students’ learning the Lingít language, but on their learning to expand their ways of thinking.
    “One of the things I try to do (in the classroom) are activities that show that we’re going to have to change our approach,” he said. “We’re going to sometimes have to think about the chemistry of the brain and how there’s a language that’s already burned some paths, and we’re going to have to burn some new ones.”
    The way the Lingít think about the world, Twitchell says, differs from the Eurocentric way it is viewed. Twitchell terms this a “thought world,” and says that it’s heavily linked to language.
    “Lingít looks at time and space differently,” he said. “It looks at relationships differently, the way it categorizes things, types of objects, types of motions, types of verbs — it’s totally different.”
    He explained that the loss of a language is the loss of its adjoining thought world, too.
    “When you lose a language,” he said, “you lose an entire thought-universe, which is not just one person’s brain, but all these interconnected minds that have connected through this one language as a medium for, in our case, 15, 20 thousand years. All that information is not going to translate.”
    Twitchell lists this as one of the reasons why it’s important to revitalize the Lingít language. He also says that the classroom now needs to act as a place for healing, not just as a place for learning.
    “(We need) to talk about some of the things that happened,” he said. He added that he wants to help people understand “how we move on from some of these things that are legitimate, that don’t say ‘let’s forget about it,’ but that look at that thing, that reconcile it in ourselves and collectively, and that come up with a plan to continue to go.”
    Sol Neely, associate professor of English at UAS and a member of the Cherokee Nation, has been working on expanding students’ perspectives, too.
    “The West has an impoverished sense of story,” Neely said in a Sentinel interview. “When we think about the richness of indigenous oral literary traditions and how storied they are, there is a creativity to the cultural imagination that Western literary traditions don’t bear.”
    He’s teaching alongside Twitchell at this year’s Outer Coast Summer Seminar. His class, “Imagining Otherwise,” teaches utopian studies and aims to help students envision a utopia outside Westernized norms.
    “What I’m doing here is basically indigenizing critical utopian studies,” Neely said. “When you look at utopian studies today, it’s so Eurocentric, but look at the cultures who lived here for thousands of years.”
    Neely says he encourages his students to ask questions about how society has reached this juncture, a juncture in which indigenous voices are not as loud as Western voices. He added that he’s currently investigating how to translate experiences between people(s) with vastly different experiences.
    “How did we get here?” he asks. “How did we sustain that? How can we begin to imagine otherwise?”
    Neely believes that the answer to his first two questions is rooted in skepticism.
    “When you’re full of fear and you’re full of skepticism, that’s when you’re most susceptible to being duped, politically,” he said. “At the heart of western and philosophical culture, skepticism has an extension in the colonial project.”
    Neely explained that skepticism, as used by colonial powers, allowed for indigenous groups to be targeted.
    “Colonial powers begin to be skeptical of the indigenous people around the world so that they can engage in whatever violence they want to,” he said. “I think fear and skepticism go hand-in-hand.”
    Like Twitchell, Neely doesn’t want to allow colonization to harness fear and overtake indigenous culture.
    “At the first staffulty meeting, I was asked to describe my class and I said, ‘you know, our political moment is characterized by fear,’” he said. “We need to be honest about that, we need to describe the shapes of that fear, and we need to promote courage.”
    Twitchell agrees that a lot of courage is needed to reclaim space for indigenous communities, cultures, and traditions.
    “There’s a lot of work communities have to do in the postcolonial world,” he said, “and there are a lot of people who don’t want to do that work. But doing that work enriches everybody, because one of the aspects of colonization that’s not talked about enough is just how active it was in trying to eliminate other languages, cultures, human beings so that it could exist.”
    He says that now that it does exist, it takes up space where other cultures used to reside.
    “It takes up so much space that it creates this imaginary scenario where the world is so finite that if there was anything else, the culture and language and life of the colonizer would be threatened,” Twitchell said.
    He linked this to his movement to revitalize the Lingít language.
    “If we are using our language on a regular basis,” he said, “it’s harder to fragment us, to break us into little groups and destroy us systematically.”